This is Waterby Rachel Eden April 25, 2018
There are two young fish swimming along a bank when they come across a big, elderly fish. The big fish greets them cheerily, “How’s the water treating you today, boys?” as he passes. Safely out of earshot, the young fish turns to his counterpart and asks, “What in the world is water?” This is how David Foster Wallace, author of “Infinite Jest,” began his commencement address to Kenyon College. The brilliance of this simple analogy is fairly obvious: There are principles we live and breathe by, that are pervasive and highly impactful, yet so insidious, we don’t even realize they’re there.
When I was 18 years old, I asked questions that were (perhaps) typical of my age. What’s the point of it all? Why am I here? My adult Jewish journey was paved with these abstract, universal questions. They motivated me to travel around the world and learn from some of the greatest teachers who lived as they taught. Now, almost 18 years later, I find myself grappling with a far more sobering set of questions. Is this it? I’ve checked the boxes of relationships, hobbies, family and career. Am I supposed to be done?
Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, worked with a 25-year-old woman named Emma who struggled with passivity. Despite her young age, Emma was resigned to her life: her estranged family, a dead-end waitressing job, and her boyfriend who was “light in ambition and heavy in temper.” One day, Emma spent nearly the entirety of her session sobbing because she bought a new address book but realized she had no one to fill in as an emergency contact. She had no friend or family member who would support her if she were in crisis. Dr. Jay used this revelation to share with Emma that she was passively allowing her life to float by without actively making decisions to shape her future for the better. Emma’s passivity, if left untouched, would have left Emma always feeling like a victim of circumstance and with a life that she didn’t ultimately choose.
One of my favorite commandments is when God instructs the Jewish people, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life, so that you and your children shall live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Do we really get a mitzvah, a commandment, to live? Is that a freebie or is it for real? Just by virtue of living, aren’t we choosing life? Rabbi Doniel Katz, international speaker and founder of The Elevation Project, discusses the knee-jerk response most of us have when a family member or friend shares “I’m tired” at the end of a day. Either we reply glibly “sorry to hear that” or begin an impossible competition of who is more exhausted. (“I got three hours of sleep last night!” “Well, I haven’t slept in two days!”) There is a missed opportunity in both of these responses. When someone shares a feeling, a bridge is forged and it’s up to us to meet our loved one on it. This requires us to switch gears, out of auto-pilot, out of passivity, and try to see life from a perspective other than our own. By doing so, we access a transcendent space called connection, kindness and influence.
When we don’t actively choose life in every moment, we become trapped in our own inner vortex of self-centeredness, apathy and isolation. Like Emma, we passively allow situations and experiences to pass through us without choosing, as God commanded, to live, to truly live. We’ll end up living one day after the other fighting the questions: Is this all there is? Am I done now?
The typical adult’s life is filled with routine and can feel like drudgery. I wake up, dress and feed my children, drive to school, work, bring everyone home, prepare dinner, organize house, and repeat. I have to pledge to reclaim my life every single day in order to make conscious choices. I must choose to view life as more than a list of checkboxes. I must choose to be present for people. I must choose to exert my best effort in every moment.
If we resist the temptation of living like those young fish and become aware of our ‘water,’ we can wake up each morning with overwhelming gratitude and purpose. We break through our survival mode and live a life where we refuse to just check the boxes. We think critically, make brave new choices, and use an enlightened lens when inspecting our environment. Our eyes are opened to our default thoughts and we wake ourselves up with the reminder: This is water; this is water.